Murphy O’Brien, former manager of Mu Du Noodles, makes migas at Cafe Fina on Wednesday. – Jane Phillips/The New Mexican
‘ Cloud cakes’ — ricotta pancakes with fresh berries and maple syrup — are among the offerings at Cafe Fina. – Jane Phillips/The New Mexican
Lucia Leon serves Lisa Velarde, left, and Marcella Romero at Cafe Fina on Wednesday. The restaurant is located where old Real Food Nation was on Old Las Vegas Highway. – Jane Phillips/The New Mexican
Annamaria and Murphy O’Brien, former manager of Mu Du Noodles, recently opened Cafe Fina and celebrated their first week in business Wednesday with their children, Luca, 6, and Ella, 4. – Jane Phillips/The New Mexican
The owners of Real Food Nation, which closed its doors in March, have leased the space near the intersection of Old Las Vegas Highway and U.S. 285 to a couple of restaurant business veterans who opened Cafe Fina on Independence Day. Annamaria and Murphy O’Brien said they envision Cafe Fina as a neighborhood meeting place that serves “modern comfort food” in an area that desperately needed more options for cuisine.
Blyth Timken, one of Real Food Nation’s owners, told a reporter in March that “novice mistakes” doomed her business. But the O’Briens both have worked in restaurants for years — Murphy since he was a kid who spent summers helping out at his sister’s restaurant in Dallas. He remembers cooking up hash browns and eggs in a sweltering kitchen and says his experiences inspired a career in food and many of the menu items at Cafe Fina, named for the Fina gas station that used to occupy the site.
Annamaria said this is the first time the couple has gone into business together. “I was scared, but it’s really been a nice collaboration,” she said. “When this came up, I was Murphy’s biggest cheerleader because I really wanted to stay in Santa Fe.”
The couple met in October 2005, and by the beginning of 2006 they were married. They have two children.
The menu items include basic New Mexican brunch fare such as a breakfast burrito and an enchilada plate, with a few unexpected dishes such as a tilapia sandwich and ricotta pancakes, also known as “cloud cakes.” All of the baked goods (cookies, lemon bars and sour cream coffee cake, to name a few) are made from scratch, in-house, with the exception of the croissants.
“These are things I’ve craved from meals I’ve had in my life,” said Murphy, former manager of Mu Du Noodles in Santa Fe.
The O’Briens said they plan to expand the menu to include quiches and more sandwich and salad options. They plan to open a drive-up window and offer a service in which parents can order box lunches for their children that the pair will either deliver or that parents can pick up. They also want to obtain a beer and wine license and start serving dinner (the restaurant currently closes at 3 p.m.).
Still, their business model is to “keep it simple,” which they said the owners of Real Food Nation failed to do. Real Food Nation grew much of the restaurant’s ingredients on-site and the owners also operated an adjacent restaurant called the Supper Club, which closed along with Real Food Nation.
“They were taking a lot on,” Murphy said. “They were trying to operate two restaurants and a garden. We’re just doing this cafe.”
Murphy knows what it is like to start a restaurant and see it fail. In 1998, he closed the doors to Atalaya Restaurant and Bakery, which he owned and operated for three years in the space on South Guadalupe Street now occupied by Whole Hog. He said he, too, failed to keep things simple with that business and took on too much.
“We took over a building that needed a lot of work. It had no commercial kitchen,” he said. “This building was ready to go.”
This time he relied on the kindness of friends to help him with everything from renovations to designing a Cafe Fina website. “Everyone’s so invested in us succeeding,” Murphy said.
Real Food Nation’s owners were two of the biggest supporters. “They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Murphy said. “They want us to succeed.”
During the interview Stephanie and Joe Galarza stopped in for a bite after going on a bike ride in the area. Joe ordered a cheeseburger and Stephanie got the tilapia. They said they make it a point to support local businesses.
“This is a nice little spot to catch a bite on the way back to Santa Fe,” Joe said.
IF YOU GO
What: Cafe Fina
Where: 624 Old Las Vegas Highway
Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday